An open letter to everyone who has told women “Don’t get too muscular”

This post was originally written as a guest post for Tony Gentilecore, and was first published on his blog here.


 

I have been strength training for about two years now. Before that, I was a starvation-dieter.

I began dieting around the age of 13 or 14. My freshman year of high school I discovered I no longer fit into size zero jeans and bam! Diet time. By the time I hit 21, the years of self-imposed malnutrition had left me at 100lbs, able to easily wrap my thumb & middle finger around my upper arm (“bicep” doesn’t seem like the appropriate word) and unable to open jars, heavy doors, or windows by myself.

Why am I telling you this?

During my seven years of starvation-dieting, I was never once told, “don’t get too thin”.

In contrast, during my two years of strength training I have been told, “don’t get too muscular” countless times.TG post 1

The first time it happened to me, I had excitedly been telling someone about my new squat PR. Weighing in at a (finally) healthy 125, I had just squatted 100lbs. I was in the middle of explaining  “my goal is a bodyweight back squat-” when I was interrupted with a “well, don’t get too muscular now”.

Being new to strength training, this crushed me.

For an awful few days it took my focus away from becoming stronger, and back to measuring myself by the gauge of “is my body pleasing for others to look at?”

After I got over it, my dismay turned into anger – no – absolute fury at this society in which 42% of girls 5-8 years old want to be thinner, and 10 million women are battling eating disorders (source), yet we hear the words “don’t get too muscular” far more often than “don’t get too thin.”

Now, while this unsolicited “advice” is generally never welcome nor appreciated, it brings up two issues: The encouragement of female weakness, and the lack of respect for female body autonomy.

One:  Culturally-encouraged female weakness

Let me tell you right now, women who strength train know how hard it is to build muscle. If you tell a woman who strength trains “don’t get too muscular” then congratulations! You have just ousted yourself as a totally ignorant fool who doesn’t even lift.

The problem is that women who don’t strength train don’t know how hard it is to build muscle, and so this phrase, “don’t get too muscular” will seriously deter them from ever picking up heavy things in the first place.

This is a big problem. Naomi Wolf explains it better than I ever could:

A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”
― The Beauty Myth

When women strength train, it is an act of borderline social disobedience. “Don’t get too muscular” is the phrase of choice used by people who are threatened by strong women to put them “back in their place”. And it’s working.

We have three generations & counting of women who have been brainwashed into voluntarily physically debilitating themselves.  Three generations of women who have been more focused on losing weight than running for government. Three generations of women have would rather be thin than intelligent. Three generations of women that would rather let the men-folk open jars for them, rather than develop the strength to open jars for themselves.

Now, I am not advocating that people start going around, accosting teenage girls with desperate pleas of “don’t get too thin! Put some meat on dem bones!” But to be completely honest, I probably would have benefited very much if I had received the message “don’t get too thin” at some point in my adolescence.

So. If you are going to say anything to a woman about her body (which you shouldn’t be doing in the first place, as I am about to explain), “don’t get too thin” is 1000% preferable  over the completely moronic “don’t get too muscular”.

Two: Lack of respect for female body autonomy

blog 2Why do people think it’s appropriate to tell women what they can & can’t do with their bodies in the first place? What makes someone think it’s perfectly acceptable to tell a woman “don’t get too muscular”?

This is an issue that’s been going on since the dawn of time, with female body autonomy being disrespected from reproductive rights, to personal space in public places, to -yes – appearance, weight, & fitness.

Most tellingly, no woman – no matter what kind of body she has – is immune from invasive suggestions on how she should be caring for her body. Women who strength train are warned against getting too “bulky”, “muscular”, or (my absolute favorite) “manly”. Women who are on the larger side by far endure the most unwanted commentary. From people remarking on what’s in their shopping carts, to what they should order at a restaurant, to what type of exercise they should be doing, to what they should be wearing whilst exercising… it never stops. Even thin women can’t escape the self-appointed body police, who unhelpfully pester them to eat more because “men like women with curves”.

 

If you are a man, and the idea of a random passerby raising knowing eyebrows at your gut whilst commenting on your ice-cream cone sounds invasive and preposterous – that’s because it is invasive and preposterous. You are just lucky enough to not experience it every day. Sometimes multiple times a day.

Men, for the most part, do not have to entertain this type of “well-intentioned” advice, because people actually respect male body autonomy. This is something that women would like to enjoy as well.

The people who tell women what they should do with their bodies are, frankly, so arrogant they believe their “benevolent suggestions” are actually doing the woman a favor. Y’know, helping us be more attractive to potential mates.

This completely disregards the fact that women do not exist to be aesthetically pleasing for others, and we (this may surprise some) often do things for ourselves.

Which brings me full circle to my anecdote in the beginning, about the first time someone interrupted my squat-excitement to not-so-helpfully remind me to avoid bulky she-man status.

Women who strength train are doing it for themselves, not for you. Women who lift weights have already eschewed social norms by touching iron in the first place, and I guarantee they give negative fucks about your opinions on their bodies.

So next time you are tempted to “help” a woman by telling her not to deadlift things because you don’t like muscular women, remember that nobody cares about your stupid boner. Especially not the lady deadlifting 200lbs in the gym tank that says “GET SWOLE”.

But even more importantly than not telling this to women who already have the ability to overhead press your girlfriend, don’t say it to women who aren’t strength training yet (like your girlfriend).  Because chances are, with every “don’t get too muscular” a girl hears, weight gets added to the already-heavily weighted scales that tip women away from becoming strong, healthy, and powerful, and towards a life of cardio, carrot sticks, and misery. And no woman deserves that.

If you (or a lady-friend) are ready to start getting strong, I highly recommend Krissy Cagney’s Beginner Strength program. She is an extremely knowledgeable professional, but more importantly, Krissy embodies female empowerment and is the type of coach that can actually change a girl’s life for the better. 

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11 thoughts on “An open letter to everyone who has told women “Don’t get too muscular”

  1. omg I’m printing this to hand out to the idiots at the gym. Thank you 🙂 Huge HUGE peeve of mine when men tell me what color my hair should be, that I looked better 10lbs ago or say odd things like, “That’s a good move. For a girl.” during warmup overhead squat sets ;).

  2. Best.Blogpost.Ever. Thank you!!! Women need to lift for bone density too, and I for one, am fully aware of how difficult it is to bulk up. Building muscle and being strong is one thing, but I won’t ever be “ripped like a guy” because for me, it’s not possible. I lift so I can carry my kid (not on my hip but out front in my arms), I lift so I can haul heavy things around the house and work without having to ask for help, from a guy. It’s part of my independence. I am a strong woman and I am damn proud of it!

  3. Being “ripped like a guy” is pretty much impossible for all women, unless they choose to take male steroids and testosterone injections in an attempt to build that sort of muscle. Women need to be strong, not only to age well – but to be able to defend herself if the need arises.

    Women are constantly under scrutiny to “look a certain way”… so much so that sometimes I wonder if we do it without even knowing that we are… and that men expect it without even realizing that they do. This past week, I made the decision to cut off my long hair. 99.8% of the responses were very positive, from women and men alike. The other .2% response was very much ‘apprehensive’ in nature… “what if I don’t like it, how long will it take for you to grow it back?”

    As you can imagine… that was a male response…

  4. NAILED IT!! great post!! Totally agree on this. it starts so early with women and the skinny thing. so sad, my body changed in the best way ever once I started lifting heavy stuff and yeah I dont care what anyone thinks thats for sure!

  5. You ROCK, Sophie! Thank you so much for this post. You eloquently put everything I think about when I walk down the street in my gym clothes, when I’m in the weight room surrounded by clueless dudes, and unfortunately, when I talk to a lot of otherwise well-informed males. I’ve been coming up with excuse after excuse not to take an Intro to Olympic/Powerlifting workshop, and this article was the extra little inspiration I needed to sign up. Thank you!!!! -Hilary

  6. I’ve had this (‘you don’t want to get muscles’) said to me a few times and sadly, always by a woman.

    I think the underlying feeling (at least in Indian culture) is that muscular women are not considered attractive (by men).

    But similarly, skinny men are also not considered attractive.

    So, thinking about the reverse… a lot of women prefer muscular men. There must be so many men out there pumping iron because they think that will make them more attractive to women. What do we think about that?

    I suppose the problems with the obsession with ‘skinny’ are the health and psychological consequences. Whereas, if you are obsessed with muscles, you are likely to be healthier and mentally strong too.

  7. Here’s what drives me crazy – it’s as though people who make these “helpful” comments not only think I should look a certain way – they also think I am an idiot. I am very, very aware of exactly what I am doing. I know why I lift and work out and I have results that I expect from that. For someone to tell me not to get too bulky (or other similar comments) it implies that I don’t understand physics and that I haven’t spent a lot of time reading, researching and making choices for myself. GAH! It drives me crazy.

    I did have a woman in my life who I normally think very, very highly of, give me some of the anti-bulky commentary. I looked her in the eye and said, “Actually, bulky would be just fine with me. I would like to build muscle. Due to genetics and other factors, I don’t think that will happen, but if it does, that would be lovely.” Blew her mind. It took quite awhile before she understood that my goals weren’t about appearance – they were about becoming stronger and building stamina. However my body changes due to working toward those goals is absolutely fine with me.

  8. Like others have said, this post totally nails it. I wrote a blog post a long time ago about what “lifting heavy” actually meant. An average little dog weighs 10lbs. If a woman doesn’t get ripped from lifting their dog every day, why the hell would they get “toned” from lifting a 10 pound weight 12 times at the gym? It drives me crazy. I think the worst offenders of telling a woman not to get “too manly” come from Instagram. You see 1000s of thin women getting told they look amazing but then if a woman posts a photo of themselves flexing it’s suddenly, “oh no. I don’t want to look like you. Gross.” Really? Sigh.

  9. Thank you for this excellent post. I’ve had multiple people say this (or something similar) to me over the years, and such comments rankled me for days afterward, but I wasn’t able to articulate why I was so upset. You’ve done that for me perfectly. No one has a right to tell women (or men for that matter) what they can and can’t do with their bodies. Not even my Mum, who unfortunately is one of those people who says such things.

  10. Girl, you rock. I’m not a heavy lifter but I do love lifting weights and doing bodyweight outdoor circuits. Ive done it under the pouring rain (I’m not made of paper). On sand (I live by the beach), concrete, asphalt, grass. You name it. I use no mat or gloves when I exercise outdoor. Even men walk by me and frown. Women see me and smile or honk in solidarity. I do my circuit anywhere. I love the fact that you are addressing all these issues about women/beauty/femininity/health and social consciousness. The idea that looking and feeling strong is somewhat anti-feminine is laughable. I’m not a bodybuilder or fitness competitor. But, I am a warrior. And I love to wear my little black dress with some muscle to accessorize and my power skirts with some strong legs added to it. :). Thanks again. I am now a loyal follower.

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